On Drake, Nicki Minaj, B.o.B., and the Art of the Debut-As-Pop-Crossover

Natasha Freaking Bedingsfield, not pictured, for good reason
Howard Huang

For the first 325 days of 2010, Nicki Minaj's baarsss were like succulent, hashtag-rap-imbued appetizers. The eyelash-batting Harajuku Barbie stomped on half the fellas she accompanied on supporting-actress collabos that bumped everywhere from hipster lounges to Escalade dashboards. A "rah-rah!" here. A "muthafuckin' MONSTER!" there. A "wait, wait, fixate" afar. Surely, this chick could rap her padded ass off. Except when her own wildly anticipated full-length finally came, Pop Star Nicki kidnapped Rap Star Nicki, and almost everyone walked away wishing Pink Friday, with its candy-coated coos and child-safety-lock lyrics, tasted more like her guest-starring hors d'oeuvres. Sugar and spice and everything nice: That's what rap debuts are made of?

Coincidentally, neither Drake nor B.o.B. "rapped enough" on their respective breakout albums—Thank Me Later and B.o.B. Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Instead, we got cheerleader pop, rock ballads, a track called "Find Your Love," and a Vampire Weekend cover to complement that Natasha Freaking Bedingfield hook on Nicki's record, making 2010 the year hip-hop's most anticipated newbies turned into off-key alt-rock r&b MCs.

Seldom do rappers so early in their careers feel the need to skew pop-ward and blatantly court indie rockers. But in 2010, it happened thrice: transparently, logically, and (the scary part) successfully. Pink Friday went gold and outsold Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in both records' third week of release. Dark horse B.o.B., once better known as André 3000 Jr., delivered two colossal pop hits, with hooks by Bruno Mars ("Nothin' on You") and Paramore's Hayley Williams ("Airplanes"). And Thank Me Later sold nearly 450,000 copies its first week out, and, like the pop-chart-topping Bobby Ray, scored multiple Grammy nominations, including Best Rap Album. Critics mostly preferred Big Boi, and everyone preferred Kanye, but with commercial success like that, it hardly matters.

For B.o.B., his cluttered musical palate proved both a blessing (the cautionary horn-filled rock-reggae hybrid "Fame") and a curse (stay away, Rivers Cuomo). Fans of the Georgian's early mixtapes—particularly 2008's left-field but still rap-heavy Hi! My Name Is Bob—got a watered-down version of that on Bobby Ray. Admirers of his pre-fame, DMX-worshipping days—full of songs like "Haterz Everywhere" and lines like, "I just want to grip your body/I like it when it's real, real sloppy"—now encountered a certain sameness; the preacher's son who plucked a guitar and shamelessly spoke of his desire to learn the cello politely retorted that today's hip-hop fans are more open-minded. Which is true. But even Ja Rule thugged out for a while.

In Pink Friday's case, the hardcore spitting is largely confined to the three opening tracks, including the stellar, staccato, Bangladesh-helmed shit-talk anthem "Did It on 'Em," where literal-potty mouthing ensues ("If I had a dick, I would pull it out and piss on 'em"), along with all the other good stuff Weezy taught her. From that point on, though, on tracks like "Right Thru Me," "Fly," and "Save Me," Minaj discovers she can sort of (not really!) sing, and suddenly the artist Kanye West suggested could be the second-greatest rapper ever in the history of time—second to Eminem—is hardly even rapping. We shouldn't be too shocked, though, that a woman who in her MTV mini-doc expressed a "paralyzing fear" of failing, one tasked with reviving the Female Hip-Hop Nation, wants to grab the biggest audience possible. When your buzz hits its peak, it seems, there's nowhere to go but pop. As the Voice's own Rich Juzwiak wrote, "It's the r&b crossover as the first album of her career. It makes me long for the days when selling out was something you resisted, not something you jumped to do."

Clearly, crossing over is the new black. Rap doesn't typically embrace cupid-struck rappers, but with Kanye and Diddy and, especially, Drake testing the limits, let's call it progress: giant leaps for rap-kind. Drizzy's mixtape-as-unofficial-first-album So Far Gone, you'll recall, was filled with glistening Auto-Tuned bars and the completely non-rap sounds of Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn and John. We knew what we signed up for. He wore his softie side like a badge; we may not have loved Thank Me Later as unconditionally as Get Rich or Die Tryin', but we mostly accepted Drake's hodgepodge of soul-searching and half-white-people problems because he wasn't embarrassed about it. And because a lot of it sounded so good. So Drake, by managing to balance the creativity of hip-hop and the lure of pop, is the least guilty of switching tunes.

And as it happens, B.o.B. is right: Hip-hop is more accepting of skinny-jeaned rappers with a Coldplay fetish nowadays. And rappers are less concerned with the backlash they risk by preening in the pages of GQ and more comfortable with being themselves, even as they're still discovering who exactly that is. It's a bleak forecast—generic pop-rap overshadowing talent—but circumstances are such that the "official," rap-murking album is the commercial product, while mixtapes and other free fodder—featuring the creative music you actually asked for—are closer to the artist's true identity. Want their old shit? Download their old mixtapes. Or hope that the next wave of mainstream rap debuts—from, say, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, or 35-year-old virgin Jay Electronica—feature more conventional rapping. But who's to say they won't reach for the crossover hit themselves? Because everyone wants to be the next Drake.

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